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Closing and Reopening: COVID-19's Impact on Law Library Services
by
Posted On June 2, 2020
Law library services have had to change rapidly due to the COVID-19 crisis, and librarians are working hard to come up with the best solutions for delivering them. “[L]ibraries and archives have ‘superpowers’ under the copyright law that allows us to supply our communities with access to materials for research, scholarship, and study,” notes lawyer-librarian Kyle K. Courtney about how libraries can “harness the law” during the crisis.

Librarians are extremely resourceful, and they can often provide answers in times of need, even in the midst of a disaster such as the COVID-19 crisis. As they pool together their assets, librarians can ensure that their communities are being well-served by e-reserves, the internet, books, social media, videoconferencing technology, and a plethora of other resources.

The types of patrons visiting a law library during this unprecedented time are in flux. For example, while many individuals are adhering to the stay-at-home order that was issued in Oregon in March, the homeless population is as in need as ever. This has presented a challenge for law libraries that remain open to the public. While it may not be feasible to offer in-person services for patrons who are homeless, libraries can help this population by making information more accessible. Using tools such as physical message boards for people who are unable to access the internet is a great way to disseminate information to those would otherwise be left out. Message boards can be used to post lists of shelter sites, lists of local food banks, and other community resources. Keeping an updated website that includes health-related resources or links to COVID-19 information is also helpful.

Oregon Law Libraries Step Up

WIRED reports, “The Library of Congress helped lead the charge [in March], announcing that it would close all its facilities to the public until April and suspend library-sponsored programs until mid-May. Soon after, public library systems in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle closed as well. … [M]ore than 3,000 libraries across the country have followed suit.” Believe it or not, many of the libraries that made the decision to close temporarily experienced a surge in the circulation of their materials. In one library, requests for books by mail at least doubled, if not tripled, reports Next City.

Oregon law libraries have gone out of their way to ensure that legal information is safely available to people in their communities. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that the novel coronavirus is detectible on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic for as long as 2–3 days. The challenge for librarians is being able to lend materials to patrons while supporting social distancing and public health containment efforts. According to Next City, curbside book pickup is becoming a popular method for delivering information to patrons to eliminate personal contact. “Another option is a books-by-mail system, which many libraries, especially rural ones, already have in place.” In late April, the Washington County Law Library decided to offer contactless pickup and drop-off of library materials while providing for the safe handling of library resources.

The Clackamas County Law Library continues to offer numerous services to the general public. Jennifer Dalglish, the library’s director, shared what it has been doing in an email. Some examples of its modified law library services include but are not limited to providing remote legal services through phone and email requests as well as creating and maintaining signage to assist patrons with checking out their own materials, printing, scanning, photocopying, and using public access computers to conduct legal research and other court-related business. The Clackamas County Law Library also offers its programming remotely, including its Lawyer in the Library Clinics, and is facilitating the sharing of updated legal and law library-related information with the legal community via a newsletter, listserv blasts, its website, and social media.

Reopening and Re-energizing

If there is ever going to be a time when libraries are going to be in demand and their services greatly needed, that time is now. Libraries are not only making more information accessible, but they are also working diligently to identify the best ways to continue serving their patrons. Many patrons have experienced job cuts and layoffs, and libraries serve as a necessary resource for those looking for employment, health coverage, or to fulfill educational needs. American Libraries notes, “A healthy community requires that all different sectors of it—across demographic groups with varying health needs—have access to information and resources to address health care concerns, prevention, support programs, and more. As essential anchor institutions, libraries can act now to educate their staff and communities about the options they have, the resources they need, and how to prepare for the uncertainty ahead.”

Opening their doors again to the public means that librarians must do what they can to ensure public safety as well as their own. Information professionals have to develop best practices for handling collections materials. Moving furniture to maintain 6 feet of distance among patrons and staffers and among themselves is just the beginning. Frequently sanitizing surfaces, placing returned materials in quarantine for several days, and offering curbside checkout service on request are just a few of the ways libraries are preparing to serve their patrons in the near future. Nevertheless, librarians are stepping up. They are making it possible for their communities to be able to access the materials they need during a public emergency.


Amber Boedigheimer, M.L.S., is a member of SLA and the Oregon Council of County Law Libraries.



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